Little Miss Sunshine
2006, R, 101 min. Directed by Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris. Starring Alan Arkin, Abigail Breslin, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Paul Dano, Greg Kinnear.
REVIEWED By Toddy Burton, Fri., Aug. 11, 2006
There's an old screenwriting credo that a good ending is both surprising and inevitable. It's that "what the ... ?!" sensation, followed almost immediately by the "ah, of course" calm. The experience is much like having just been taken on an adventurous journey by a reliable guide. This combination of surprise and comfort defines the power of Little Miss Sunshine. The film is bountiful with unconventionality and quirk, but at the end of the day, it's a traditional story that delivers in a satisfying way. Sunshine embraces the well-paved comedy road-trip structure with more than one rip-off, er, homage to the classic National Lampoon's Vacation. And the film is so much fun, it's almost impossible not to enjoy the journey. Like any indie comedy worth its weight in quirkiness, the movie is packed with offbeat characters, all struggling to find meaning in life: The Nietzsche-obsessed teenage son (Dano) hasn't spoken in nine months; the father (Kinnear) is a motivational speaker with boundless determination and little insight; the grandfather (Arkin) is a heroin-shooting hedonist who can rarely communicate without shouting; and the uncle (Carell) pretty much takes the cake of idiosyncrasies as a gay, suicidal Proust scholar. When the 7-year-old daughter (Breslin) is accepted to compete in a prepubescent beauty pageant, the race is on to get from New Mexico to California. Amid this eclectic ensemble (which includes Collette as a put-upon wife), there's not a weak link in the performances. Arkin is on the top of his game, and Carell brings realism to a role that could have easily galloped away into caricature-land. But as the starry-eyed, wannabe pageant queen, Breslin is amazing; she captures the heart of the film. Dayton and Faris, a husband-and-wife directing team, manage genuine emotion in their feature debut and succeed in grounding the often-outrageous film. It doesn't hurt that the script, by first-timer Michael Arndt, paints hilarious and well-rounded portraits of the six-member family. But while precisely stylized use of the camera evokes a boldness reminiscent of The Graduate or early Woody Allen, endearing moments are the glue holding this frequently cynical movie together. When the family finally arrives at its destination, the depiction of child pageant queens, at once disturbing and hilarious, is the cherry on top of this wild ride. The result is a climactic scene that is pretty near perfect: both laugh-out-loud surprising and endearingly inevitable.